Friday Food for Thought: 7 April 2023

An honest bookstore would post the following sign above its ‘self-help’ section: ‘For true self-help, please visit our philosophy, literature, history, and science sections, find yourself a good book, read it, and think about it.’

Roger Ebert, from I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie

To this day, I’ll sometimes watch a movie and wish to know what Roger Ebert would have thought about it. I’m clearly not alone, as writers at the web site offered remembrances of him this week on the tenth anniversary of his death. I wasn’t a fan of Ebert or Gene Siskel when they worked together on At The Movies because I thought they were too insulting to each other. (Were they joking? Did each know the other was joking? They must have. I didn’t like the insults, either way.) But I developed a great fondness for them later. It was Ebert who taught me the value of a good film review. One criteria: it’s a work that can stand by itself whether you watch the movie or not. He also taught me the importance of evaluating a film based on what it was trying to be. Airplane! (1980) and Casablanca (1942) have different purposes and shouldn’t be evaluated by the same criteria. I disagreed with plenty of Roger Ebert’s reviews (no way is The Deer Hunter a 4-star movie) but I welcomed the insights he offered and there are plenty of movies I appreciated more because of his reviews. That’s no small achievement for those of us who live by the mantra spoken by Steve Martin’s Davis in Grand Canyon (1991): All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. Which is probably why I got misty-eyed reading Chaz Ebert’s tribute, “A Return to the Presence of Love,” which you should definitely read with a box of tissues handy, along with her equally moving tribute from 2013, “I Miss Roger’s Reviews.”

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

Roger Ebert gave four stars to Casablanca and Grand Canyon, and three stars to Airplane!, so I feel I’m in good company.

I finished System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein. The book isn’t perfect, especially in its generosity toward big evil corporations. For example, the authors cite statistics from Facebook about how much harmful online content the company removed proactively, before even being identified by users. What’s missing, however, are statistics about the accuracy of that content removal or how fairly it was applied. This came just after the authors provided an example of Facebook aggressively suspending women’s accounts over gender-specific content like “Men are scum” while failing to remove misogynistic and threatening content posted by men. Still, overall, the book is well done and disturbing about our future prospects.

  • P. 62: “Not only has the United States fallen behind other developed countries in broadband penetration and internet speeds, but Americans also pay much higher prices. In 2020, Americans paid an average of $68.38 monthly for broadband, while the prices in France ($30.97), the UK ($39.48), and South Korea ($32.05) were significantly lower. The fact that other countries are doing better at delivering high-quality service and lower prices means that the problem isn’t simply a function of the high costs of infrastructure…but a reflection of policy choices in the United States.”
  • P. 137: “Every year, when we ask a room full of three hundred students how many of them care about protecting the privacy of their personal data, nearly all of their hands go up. But when we follow up by asking them how many have viewed or made changes to the privacy settings on any of the search or social media applications they use, few hands remain raised.”
  • P. 179, re: the use of automation to reduce work force: “Worse, the tax code in the U.S. exacerbates the situation by taxing labor at rates of roughly 25 percent but equipment and software at less than 5 percent, an effective subsidy to corporations that purchase machines and software that automate the workplace.”
  • P. 185: “The idea that Americans can move up the income ladder is central to the country’s identity. The reality is that Europeans born in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution are almost twice as likely to move to the top 20 percent as Americans are. According to Harvard economist Raj Chetty, ‘You’d have a better chance of achieving “the American dream” if you’re growing up in Canada or many Scandinavian countries than the United States.'”
  • P. 250: “One ethically dubious strain of AI research…involves the deployment of facial recognition tools to make predictions about various forms of human identity or behavior such as homosexuality or criminal tendencies. Such efforts appear to be a modern revival of physiognomy, the discredited scientific practice of inferring inner traits from outside appearances. … There was also a paper published in Journal of Big Data by Mahdi Hashemi and Margeret Hall called ‘Criminal Tendency Detection from Facial Images and the Gender Bias Effect’ that claimed to distinguish likely from unlikely criminals on the basis of ‘the shape of the face, eyebrows, top of the eye, pupils, nostrils, and lips.'”

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